On Iran, Liberals Are Enabling Another Disastrous War

Beinart chats with friends in high places: Liberal “hawks” like him played a major role in enabling the Iraq debacle

In 2003, the United States launched an unprovoked invasion of Iraq, a country that had neither attacked nor threatened it — and we, and the Iraqis, are still living with the consequences. Going to war in Iraq was made possible — easy, even — for the Bush Administration not only by Republican hawks and neocon extremists (the wannabe Army Corps of Social Engineers) baying for blood, but even more importantly, by supposedly sober and moderate liberal voices — the Peter Beinarts, Ken Pollacks, George Packers and the editors of the New York Times — not only failing to challenge the basic logic of the case for war, but providing their own more elegant (although equally brutal when stripped of their high-minded rhetoric) rationalizations for invading Iraq.

It was the liberal “hawks” and the New York Times, by failing to ask the right questions of the case for war, that did more to make the war a “thinkable” option for America than any neocon. They allowed the question to be posed simply as one of whether Saddam had weapons of mass destruction or not. And because nobody could give an absolute assurance in the negative, the argument became “better safe than sorry”. The liberals and the New York Times offered no challenge, and asked no questions, of the basic assumption that if Saddam had, in fact, had a couple of warehouses full of VX gas and refrigerator full of anthrax, that necessitated launching a war that has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of upward of half a million Iraqis (and thousands of Americans) and left America weaker and more vulnerable.

And the bad news is that they’re doing it again on Iran.

By asking the wrong questions on Iran, and failing to ask the right ones, the liberal media establishment and some of its key pundits are mainstreaming what is in essence an extremist foreign policy option.

The latest example comes in today’s Washington Post, where Ray Takeyh and Steven Simon essentially provide a “how-to-bomb Iran” manual for an Administration less inclined to dress its wars up in cowboy clothing than its predecessor was, but by its actions in Afghanistan showing that it’s no less committed to waging those wars.

To their credit, Takeyh and Simon note that there’s no legal basis for attacking Iran, and that the Administration would have a hard time winning U.N. Security Council authorization for such a move.

the United States has obtained a series of U.N. resolutions censuring Iran not because its legal arguments and foreign policy views have wowed the world, but simply because its European partners have feared that Washington might otherwise take matters into its own hands. These anxieties were more acute during the Bush years, but they have hardly dissipated with new occupants in the White House. From Europe’s perspective, the U.N. process is designed not just to pressure Iran but also to enmesh the United States in cumbersome proceedings that limit its choices.

It may be comforting for Washington to blame China and Russia as the key obstacles to more forceful measures against Iran, but Britain and France — where public opinion is already against participation in the war in Afghanistan — also have little appetite for striking… Washington would have to choose between an international coalition pledging rigorous containment of Iran, and the lonely, unpopular path of taking military action lacking allied consensus.

They recommend that Obama first try further sanctions, and also that he make sure he has the American people behind his decision to launch a war — and also make sure that he had the support of the Gulf Arab regimes. But the most outrageously naive and dangerous bit of logic they offer is this:

As it contemplated the use of force, the administration’s decision-making would be further complicated by the need for a plan to unwind military hostilities and make sure a confrontation did not escalate out of control. The White House would have to signal to Tehran that the U.S. military objective was not to overthrow the clerical regime but to enforce the will of the international community by disabling Iran’s nuclear program. The message would need to make clear that for the United States, hostilities would end with the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities, but that if Iran retaliated, Washington would press its attacks until Tehran could no longer respond.

The idea that you can bomb a country and then “make sure the confrontation does not escalate out of control” is, quite simply, bizarre. Of course Iran is going to retaliate, painfully, over years and even decades. Bombing will, as sober heads have warned, almost certainly spark a protracted war with potentially devastating consequences for Iran (its government and people, including its opposition), Israel, the United States (which has hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in Iran’s immediate neighborhood and the wider Middle East. And it’s more likely to make Iran acquire nuclear weapons than to deter it from doing so.

As the Leveretts have noted, the question of bombing Iran is on the table simply because of the fact that Iran is enriching uranium, and the apocalyptic fantasies that Israel and its most passionate backers in Washington attach to that fact. Iran is not believed by US intelligence to be building a nuclear weapon, but to be moving to “breakout capacity”, i.e. the assembly of all the components of a nuclear weapon via a civilian energy program, but not actually building a bomb — what Japan has done, in other words. And it’s not hard to see the appeal for Iran’s leaders of having such capability at hand in a context where three of its key strategic adversaries — the U.S., Israel and Pakistan — are nuclear armed.

The idea that starting a catastrophic war in the Middle East to preserve Israel’s monopoly on nuclear force in the Middle East — which President Obama publicly signed off on during Netanyahu’s recent visit — ought to be unthinkable. But the likes of Simon and Takeyh are making it thinkable. The media war party also seems to accept at face value the claim that the Obama Administration has “tried engagement” with Iran. That’s rubbish. As Gary Sick and others with some understanding of U.S. diplomacy with Iran have noted, no serious and comprehensive attempt to engage Iran in a dialogue on the full gamut of conflicts between the two powers has yet occurred. The U.S. until now has largely confined itself to talking in order to get Iran to heed Western demands on its nuclear program; the only way to stabilize Iran’s relations with the U.S., Israel and the rest of the region will be through a grand bargain that recognizes Iran’s status in the region and regulates its relations with all of its neighbors. Of course Iran’s internal dynamic has made that challenge massively complicated for both sides. But to dodge that challenge and instead launch a war that can only make matters worse seems to be to be criminally insane — insanity enabled by supposedly sober people falsely presenting yet another war of choice as some kind of necessity.

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